Teaching is one of those bewildering adult things. I didn’t expect myself to stumble into it at age 11. Especially when I was myself having a trouble in finding a friendly lunch table in my new Gurgaon school.
But it wasn’t quite a surprise either. You see, I’ve been this annoyingly uppity – moralistic little girl all my life. On one such impulse, I wanted to teach the under privileged kids around my block. Right here was my next big adventure.
Gurgaon is a city chasing modernity. I was in awe of the sky high glass buildings, plush housing blocks, wide roads and sleek metro trains. But it settled down slowly. On the other side, the constant rankling sounds of never ending construction, its associated dust, pollution and misty haze, the ever expanding migrant diaspora who work there, gave one the impression that it was still a work in progress.
These migrants bring along a startling poverty. I saw makeshift jhuggies sprouting along every roadside, people bathing with soap suds out in the open, unkempt little girls and boys playing in the streets. In the evenings, as I would walk or jog around with my friends, we all averted gazes as we came to the shacks.
But not so the children playing there. They would stare at us unembarrassed, with a frankness in the eyes, demanding some recognition or response from us. The honesty of this demand would astonish me.
It struck me that while we zoomed off to our ‘international schools’, in stylish yellow school buses every morning, did all kind of hobby classes, with our nagging mothers constantly at our throats, they had none of that.
They seemed to be out in the sunshine, playing all day. Nobody bothered what they did with their hours. It was then that I first felt something more than pity. More than the guilty glances we usually gave these children. It was empathy.
Why did this happen?
That evening I simply walked into one of those shacks and persuaded a father to send his three children to me for an hour in the evening. Where? The park would work. Yes, I had the notebooks. Yes, the pencils too. No – yes I’m sure – I don’t take any fees.
From that day on to the next two years or so we were in Gurgaon, I saw and experienced some incredible things. When my first batch of three kids left for their village after their father’s employment ended – I found a tumble of five spirited little girls.
Finally, my class ballooned to over 12 kids in that little park, in front of our house.
I would often interact and feel the happiness of the poor mothers, who were unbelievably happy at the ‘free’ tuitions. There was even a special child in my class, Bunty.
I learnt a lot about the kind of life privileged kids are often sheltered from, and my experiences have led me to learn a lot about the basic goodness in all of us.
I would struggle to relate all this in a few hundred words. So, I’ve tried and put down some of my memories here as emotions.
Thus the story will live on within you, and time cannot threaten to blur it out easily.
Children enchant parents, elders, youngsters alike. But it’s funny how quickly childhood trickles out from within you, when you become a teenager.
You’re suddenly plunged into this new world of people, problems and raging emotions. The little things which used to give you so much happiness turn irrelevant and vanish.
I saw all sorts of things. When I would step out into the garden, every evening, for the class, their faces would lit up. A big rush would break out with a whole lot of screams. It’s quite something to get that kind of reception every day.
‘Why were you not coming?’
‘We were just going to bean a brick to your windows!’
‘Not my windows.’ I would retort horrified !
‘Well the old grandma who lives below us would chase you guys down the streets.’
I remember when we ended our studies, and came to the 15 minutes of play – a carnival would break out around me.
Even the little boys who’d toss me overboard when I’d pleaded with them to draw their C properly, now jumped, ran and gleefully chased each other. The class energy would now rise to its highest, and no matter how dull the studying might have been, I always managed to send them home with a smile on their faces.
I was struck by just how simple it was to please these kids.
My own teacher once wearily told me, ‘That’s the difference between teaching little kids and the teenagers. You need lots more patience, but they have the purest, dearest little hearts you could hope for. They really love you.’
In a life bred with poverty, these children didn’t have a single frown to show for it. They were some of the happiest people I knew. That makes me really curious.
What was so impressive about looking constantly busy? Impressively
adult-ish, big worry creases on a forehead and a receding hairline? Mildly constipated?
Why didn’t people let themselves to laugh more, smile more?
2. A Disillusioned Teacher
So I had this vague dream about teaching. There I was on the altar, spotlight firmly on me, as I expounded my theories on why the sun shone, how trees grew, why the earth was round. All in a loud, impressive, teacherly voice. The children gaped at me with way more interest than 7 year olds tend to have in that sort of situation.
Wipe that grin of your face
It never happened.
Most days I was running from bench to bench, trying to teach as a flurry of notebooks ran after me.
‘Didi I’ve completed!’
Completed what, you ask?
No, not brilliant Stephan Hawking theorems or papers on Dickensian literature. But the passion and sense of accomplishment was no less on their faces.
It was counting 1- 100, writing them alphabet; the basics. For the first time, I understood why they scrubbed a kid for five years in school before getting to the hot stuff in 6th Grade. It was strange to see them struggle over the letters people thoughtlessly scribbled off every day.
Sometimes I felt like a triumphant scientist – sculpting humans from mammals. It was amazing how quickly they evolved. Maybe that’s the reason humans haven’t been charred to death on Earth by now.
It was surprising how many of them loved Maths. Simple addition, subtraction, used their minds in ways my English couldn’t hope to yet. Meanwhile, my father had a good laugh as I sweated over the vocabulary he’d learnt in his boyhood days. ‘Jod’ was addition; ‘Ghata’ meant subtraction. The Hindi ‘Pahare’ they recited, completely flew over my head.
Teaching was a fall of vanity. I had to confront that everything I’d hoped for couldn’t possibly be understood yet. There were times, with the pandemonium of a full noisy class bursting upon me – I’d walk home feeling like sawdust has been poured down my throat. It did get tiresome.
For the first time I truly felt like I stood in the shoes of our teachers, me and my peers had hated the most – the livid, frosty nosed ones. It was just so easy to drop into the humdrum routine of yelling, danda – mar and repeat when you’re convinced you’re teaching dumb kids. You stop asking yourself questions. You stop seeing any potential or worth in children.
It crushes them.
I realized they looked up at me because they wanted love and appreciation. They were small and so loving. You could just give them a quarter of your faith.
I learnt a lesson about the human heart then. to inspire people, you have to see everything they don’t see in themselves.
3. Wonder & Magic
‘It just won’t work,’ I sighed and told my mother one evening.
‘They’re learning letters and all, but that’s not real education is it? They’re never going to learn important things.’
‘Er – yeah.’
‘Then teach them in a way you love,’ she said wisely. ‘Stories will do it.’
And that was how some of the most fun times came about in class. I made them sit on the grass, picture books in my hands, and invented all kinds of stories. And after a while – they began to relish them. They looked at me like a magician with a hat, pulling out rabbits.
These stories were about cleanliness, morals, being kind, gentle, being brave. There were moments of pin-drop silence sometimes – and I knew I’d succeeded in carrying them into the world I was so captivated by. A feeling of magic, real connection ran through everybody there.
But they surprised me too. The next day, the tattered clothes were gone. All the girls had washed, combed hair and the boys wore fresh shirts. Dirt free, blunt nails. Since then, everybody who came to class clean got a high-five.
But while I was trying to show them the facts in about the trees, the flowers and the sun – they surely saw a something in it I didn’t.
Once I taught a group of shrill little girls listened about how a butterfly slips out of her cocoon. The next I saw them, they ran towards me by the roadside.
‘We spent an hour finding it!’ They had a tiny blue butterfly trapped in their hands.
4. Power Plays
Prejudice, I found out, runs deepest at the grass root level. There were standards and mindsets these kids had already built up, through the life they saw around themselves.
There was a girl called Payal in our class. And she had a chutzpah for hitting every boy in class. They couldn’t hit her back, and so they were sent home with a black eye for a while. Then one day, a brawl broke out before I came. One of the boys had pushed her off.
Before I knew what was happening – frizzy haired Payal had called her mother. A brash, towering lady in a wrinkled sari had come and thwacked the poor boy right before my eyes. She let a stream of colorful Bengali curses.
I stood dumbfounded. Then the dear lady turned towards me, and meekly asked how my day was going.
There were more incidents I saw. Among the children too, superiority reigned. Girls and boys who had grey school bags, who attended government schools, were told to stay away from the ‘dirty cussing children’ who came from the other side of the road, to the class. They couldn’t sit with them, or share their pencils or sharpeners. I wondered why?
Yet, there was a time I saw my whole class unite against a crop of new children who visited our class one day. They were black, stick thin. They were like a walking talking litter, with their stained clothes, white smiles. And my whole class shifted to make them sit separately.
They knew these children had seen days even worse than them.
And they, just like the people above them, were scared of that poverty.
5. Defeat and Ruin
Then there were the things I couldn’t escape.
My girls and boys weren’t much different from normal children. But poverty dragged its footprints in and showed itself in the way they talked, the way they thought.
‘Is that your husband Didi?’ Kunal, a little boy asked me one day.
I turned around to see my 19 year old brother getting into the car with his golf set.
Another time, it was Kunal again who gave me insight. His older brother Aryan, a plump 10 year old with a competitive streak – was rumored to be wandering around with older boys. Buying gutka, and smoking away the late hours of the evening.
‘You have to talk to him.’
‘What?’ Kunal peeked at me.
‘If your brother’s in trouble, it’s your duty isn’t it? You love him. And he’s smart – he helps you and Bunty with your homework. What will happen to him if he gets addicted?’
‘Yes.’ He nodded gloomily. ‘It’ll rot his brain.’
‘And if he keeps spending – your family may lose money…’
I repeated that a few times until Kunal finally burst out.
‘But it’s not our money, Didi. He’s my uncle’s boy.’
‘So? Isn’t he your brother?’
Once, a prickly headed little boy, Kanhaiya –gawked at me. It was the end of summer, and I’d worn black Reebok shorts which stopped at my knees.
‘Hey what?’ I rumpled his hair.
Kanhaiya looked down, embarrassed.
‘I’ve got the same old two legs as you. Why can’t I wear shorts like you?’
He was silent. He nodded after a while.
‘Yes – you do have the same skin as me Didi.’
But out of all, the most surreal experience was one afternoon, when I was taking two boys for the free education program at the school behind my house, Suncity International.
The teacher there is a kind lady who takes classes, even for a few of the spirited little girls I’d first taught.
I couldn’t keep the smile off my face when I saw Aanchal there. That vagabond of a girl had calmed down. Betterment was glowing off her – in the neat little ponytail she’d tied, her deep green school sweater. Her eyes had a new understanding in them.
So this afternoon, I was walking along. There were but a few days left in August 2016, and we would leave for Chandigarh. I was taking my only two students out of school in my class, to enroll. Their mother was walking with me.
She looked no more than 25 years old. Her youthful face was riddled with weariness, there was an expression in her eyes, that told me life had already aged her.
‘I just don’t know what to do, Didi,’ she said quietly.
‘Are you alright?’
‘It’s the boy’s father. I don’t know what to do with him. I break my back working for my children all day. And he goes to the brewery and drinks his brains out every night.
I mumbled nervously. ‘‘You could ask him to think about his boys, about the kind of example he was setting.
‘I do, Didi. When it’ll get to him, only God knows.’
She looked at me.
‘What about you? Do you plan to marry?’
‘But I’m fourteen.’
‘Oh you are?’ She smiled. ‘By God – you’re already so smart for a little girl. You’ll become an officer or something, Didi.’ She smiled.
And it was this world view that showed me just how many different shades life came in. There were little boys spraying water with pipes on construction sites, picking up boulders while I came home to biscuits and Sherlock episodes every day after school.
There was this lady, who had spent her girlhood among pots & burning stoves. She didn’t forget to smile.
6. Like a Do – Gooder
Kindness makes people feel amazing, they say. I couldn’t call mine an act of kindness since they were rather a long string of months. With all the screaming, shouting, laughing, playing – I didn’t quite feel like a snowy angel throughout. I did figure out something though
True kindness goes beyond yourself, it looks through the eyes of empathy. It feels exhilarated in helping people grow, in watching them soar and succeed.
That is what I found with the kids I taught. It wasn’t quite a great, earth shattering shift – but the little changes which slowly made them better before my eyes.
Dark and bashful little Bunty, was a special child. He walked with a slight limp and never really spoke except when he was angry – unleashing a selection of dazzling Bihari curses. As we made him walk surefooted, he began to run and jump with the other kids. His voice cleared.
Bitty and Ajay, the twins who always came in dirty pajamas and hair infested with fleas, began wearing fresh clothes. Kusum – who sadly came to class after a day of housekeeping tasks, learnt to laugh and wheeze like the child she was supposed to be.
It was only in writing this story, that I saw how much had actually changed.
In the view of education, my contribution is but meager sums and ABC’s.
But every smile, every smile that rang out in class – I realized was a gift too.
7. To Feel the World’s Eyes on You
There were quite a few reactions to what I did in the neighborhood.:
‘OMG! Girl, you teach? Totally cool. I’m going to help out too!’ It was a rare two times this happened, but then the girls who’d volunteered disappeared again as school, games and social life called after them.
‘That girl of Col Sharma’s , next door – such a good girl that one,’ uncles and aunties would say soberly. ‘She teaches poor children…Yes noble thought.’
There was even a friend of my brother’s who was nice enough to make puns once in a while. ‘I’m skipping college, dude. Just – tell your little sister to crank up tuitions for me too. Heck – we gotta learn English from her.’
Some way or the other, they impressed their opinions upon me. But the way poor people are actually perceived in our country – became clearer and clearer. They were just one, big faceless sea of misfortune. Chucked away in a corner. People kept their distance, afraid to come too close.
To see too much. Too much of their roofless houses, their dry cracked walls. These children with dust and destruction clinging on them.
It took courage, that was the biggest thing I realized. To see people living 50 yards away, trapped in lives 50 years in the past.
To allow yourself to feel their pain, their desperaton. To cut yourself from the pack, and try to help them up. To be brave enough to realize that one person can change things.
I hope my experiences inspire you to find the same courage within yourself.
You have potential you have to change lives in a way you never imagined. Everyone does.
You can see those situations, those people you ignore everyday – and realize life has given you the opportunity to help. To grow and see things no one else could, to meet amazing people, to have experiences
All it takes is one leap of faith
I hope you enjoyed that! A big hug to you for making it all the way through 3000 words.
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Thank you for reading. ❤
( Update 2017 = This is a gratitude note. I was just so stunned to see so many people read this post and feel great and a little pumped up to do something. Many people, friends of friends and grown adults, came to me and expressed how much they liked it! People on WhatsApp, strangers on Facebook, Twitter, took out the time of their day to tell me. I made some amazing new friends! It’s been two months since this article and of course now too, I can see the literary faults in brevity and conciseness. But I can’t thank you enough for what all of you have done for this little post. )